Hiroshima Dreams: How a Cinema Legend Tackled Nuclear Terror

Akira Kurosawa uses the architecture of a dream to attempt to make sense of the terror that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs forced into the Japanese psyche.

Today is the 69th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and an occasion to try to make sense of one of humanity's darkest moments.

For my money, it's usually the novelists and filmmakers who best distill atrocity down to its crystalline essence. And so it was when Japanese director Akira Kurosawa tackled the twin bombings that flattened the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his final film, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, released in 1990.

Up until 1945, the masses couldn't have fathomed weapons of nuclear magnitude. What occurred in those two moments of scientific and technological alchemy was as elemental as the universe itself. But to most people it must have felt something like what science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) said in 1973: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Sure, the bombs' power was actual and physical. But, their real power was the psychological terror they induced—a form of terrorism itself. How could novelists and filmmakers even begin to reckon with the alchemical power of the atomic obliteration visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

If anyone was equipped for the task as a storyteller, it was Kurosawa. He was (and still is) renowned for his inventive samurai flicks. Seven Samurai, Kurosawi's classic film about seven samurai warriors defending a town harassed by bandits, mutated into the Hollywood western The Magnificent Seven. The nonlinear editing of Kurosawa's Rashoman influenced filmmakers from Werner Herzog to Quentin Tarantino.

Katsushika Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Though dismissed as a middling effort at the time of its release, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams carries an incredible sort of psychic resonance that is vastly underrated— the type necessary to contend with the scientific magic dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; events cinematic in their own right as revealed in archival footage shot by the US military, who surely learned a bit about moving images from Hollywood. Indeed, the dreamscapes in Dreams are a nod to the magical dreamscapes of cinema itself.

Composed of eight dreams divided into eight chapters, each is a cinematic representation of dreams Kurosawa had over his lifetime. Of the eight, "The Blizzard" and "The Tunnel" are two of the most haunting and effecting. The Blizzard follows in anguished slow motion a group of mountaineers tiring of their effort, and becoming buried under snow, before encountering a snow demon. The Tunnel follows a Japanese military officer from World War II as he emerges from a tunnel, only to encounter his lost and dead platoon.

In the "Mount Fuji in Red" dream, Kurosawa uses the architecture of a dream to attempt to make sense of the terror that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs forced into the Japanese psyche. In the segment, a man cuts through a scattering crowd running from Mount Fuji, which is engulfed in apocalyptic red flames, a reference to Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji woodblock print series, which convey how the rising sun turns the mountain red in autumn.

The "Mount Fuji in Red" dream film subverts the artwork. The mountain isn't red because of the light of the morning sun, but because of a nuclear reactor disaster. What's neat here is that Kurosawa is drawing a parallel between the sun and nuclear weapons, both powered by atomic energy. One giveth life, the other taketh away.

Some might say that this dream segment is more prophetic of Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown. This deserves some consideration, but Kurosawa was not, as far as I know, interested in prophecy. It's far more likely that he was trying to exercise the demons that the two atomic bombs had placed in his mind, and in the collective consciousness of his countrymen.

What's really interesting about the sequence with Mount Fuji engulfed in nuclear flame is that it looks totally unreal; the special effects are surreal to the point of cartoonish. And this unreal quality actually, in my mind, mirrors what had to have felt like the unreal atomic devastation experienced by those citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Film has the unique potential to create this sort of cartoonish unreality. 

In "Mount Fuji in Red," the nuclear devastation happens slowly, whereas in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it happened in a near instant. The flames billow, and the people continue scattering. Then Kurosawa makes an abrupt cut to a seaside scene where survivors have congregated. The man who had been seen running through the crowd in the beginning is still running around trying to make sense of the disaster. The answers to his questions will be few.

What he does learn, from a man in a suit, is that the radioactive red gas drifting above the ground is Plutonium-239, 10,000,000th grams of which causes cancer. The man also learns that the yellow gas is Strontium-90, which "gets inside of you and causes Leukemia." The purple gas, on the other hand, is Cesium-137, which effects reproduction, triggering mutations.

And it's just after this description that Kurosawa produces deep existential chills. They come in the form of the man in the suit's dialogue.

"Man's stupidity is unbelievable," says the character. "Radioactivity was invisible. And because of its danger, they colored it. But that only lets you know what kind kills you. Death's calling card."

The man seeking answers then sees his own death drifting in upon a cloud of Plutonium-239. And, in of the most bone-chilling sequences in cinema, he tries to disperse the radioactive gas with his jacket, fighting a losing battle against humankind's monumental stupidity. 

In a way, this is the novelist or filmmaker's curse: they can present all the truths in the world in that literary or cinematic mirror, but is anyone really listening? Is anyone learning?